Grief has two dimensions: one, the magnitude of what is lost; the other, the inadequacy of what is left.
That was the tension woven into the tributes paid Wednesday to the character and statesmanship of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States. His funeral at Washington National Cathedral also managed, like the man himself, to do something that is nearly impossible — to be both regal and modest at the same time.
In the first of four eulogies, Bush biographer Jon Meacham summed up the standards Bush had set for himself: “His life code, as he said, was, ‘Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.’ And that was, and is, the most American of creeds.”
Then came Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister of Canada, speaking of the respect with which other world leaders regarded Bush, and the kinship they felt for him: “There’s a word for this. It’s called leadership. Leadership. Now, let me tell you that when George Bush was president of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew that they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one who was distinguished, resolute and brave.”
And then Alan Simpson , the salty ex-senator from Wyoming, offered this: “He was a man of such great humility. Those who traveled the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
When his son, the 43rd president of the United States, gave the final and most emotional eulogy, he spoke about the human qualities all good fathers share.
“He was firm in his principles, and supportive as we began to seek our own ways. He encouraged and comforted, but never steered. We tested his patience. I know I did,” George W. Bush said, which brought laughter. “But he always responded with the great gift of unconditional love.”
Of course, through all of this, it was impossible not to discern the contrast with the current president. Bush was not perfect, either as a man or a politician. But so many of the qualities that he had in abundance are the ones most lacking in Donald Trump.
The Bush family’s disdain for Trump is well known, but its reverence for the institution of the presidency is even greater, which is why they made sure that he would be there, to sit with three of his predecessors — albeit awkwardly — in the front pew.
Still, Trump seemed less of a presence than he had three months before, at another funeral in the sanctuary of the cathedral that architect Pierre L’Enfant envisioned as “a great church for national purposes.”
Trump was pointedly not invited to the Sept. 1 service for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which had been conducted with as much pomp as though McCain had been a president himself.
Nor was Trump’s name ever mentioned at McCain’s funeral. But it was, as McCain intended, a primal rebuke to Trump, his brand of politics and his character.
George W. Bush gave a eulogy at McCain’s funeral as well. There, Bush made an unmistakable swipe at Trump when he said: “John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.”
Though the elder Bush’s funeral was also set in the context of this moment in Washington, the message was more a summons than a censure.
It was a coda to the closing lines of George H.W. Bush’s 1989 inaugural address, in which he said: “Some see leadership as high drama and the sound of trumpets calling, and sometimes it is that. But I see history as a book with many pages, and each day we fill a page with acts of hopefulness and meaning. The new breeze blows, a page turns, the story unfolds.”
Bush’s own final page has turned. The book is closed. But the story continues to unfold, and perhaps reflecting on his better qualities might help us find them in ourselves.
Godspeed, George Bush. Oh, and say hello to Barbara for us.